click here for the presentation with images
Meeting with Historian John Ralston on Sunday, February 27, 2011
Los Altos Hills is of course hilly, and being wooded and rural,
seems an unlikely place for a pilot to land in or take off from.
Private aircraft in the 1930's however were comparatively small
and light, requiring only a few hundred feet to land and take
off; many took off from pastures and other clearings. Aviation
enthusiast Ralph Isenberg, owner of two planes, cleared a landing
strip on his extensive property between today's Altadena Drive
and Old Trace Lane. Isenberg and friends of his flew from his
improvised air strip, which also had a small aircraft hangar for
shelter and maintenance.
Isenberg's property was purchased by pioneer Palo Alto physician
Esther Clark (sister of architect Birge Clark) in 1944. The airstrip
became history, but is still visible although overgrown.
1914 Palo Alto realtor William Cranston bought a 20-acre parcel
of land in Los Altos Hills at what is now the corner of Fremont
Road and Campo Vista Drive. The property included a big red barn
and an old shingled farmhouse, which was called the Red Barn House.
Two Cranston children, daughter Ruth Eleanor and son Alan - who
would become United States Senator from California - roamed the
area in childhood. In 1922 the Cranstons sold the property to
Dr. C.C. Crane. Crane demolished the old farmhouse and erected
an elaborate manor in the style of a French chateau.
In 1946 Donald Winbigler, Dean of Students at Stanford University,
and his wife Mary Elizabeth, a professional classical Spanish
dancer, purchased the property. The Winbigler House, as it became
known, and the surrounding property, with an apricot and plum
tree orchard, became a popular subject for local artists.
In 2002, the Winbiglers having passed, new owners applied for,
and were granted, a permit to make additions to the house in the
original style. Instead, they demolished the house.
On Sunday, February 27, 2011, John Ralston, Program Director
of the Los Altos Hills Historical Society, will give an illustration
presentation on both lost landmarks.
Ralston is a third-generation San Franciscan, the great grandson
of Henry Russell Ralston, a Scottish ironworker who arrived in
San Francisco with his brother, the first John Ralston, around
1865, and who with the first John established the Ralston Iron
Works on Howard Street about 1870.
The current John was born on May 10, 1942, and as it was just
after the United States entered World War II there was a shortage
of necessities, including taxicabs. No cab came to the family's
Larkin Street address when John's mother went into labor, and
John's uncle was called in the middle of the night to take his
mother and panic-stricken father to St. Mary's hospital. John's
uncle tore over in his vintage 1940 Buick, the party was hustled
aboard, and the Buick tore off, but too late. Sixty-five years
later, John basks in the satisfaction of knowing that while many
San Franciscans boast of being born in such-and-such a neighborhood,
he was born in several! Appropriately, May 10th was Mother's Day.
Like his father, uncle, aunt, and two older brothers, John attended
the old Lowell on Hayes Street, and he majored in history at the
University of California, Berkeley, with an emphasis on Russia
and the Soviet Union. The circumstances of his birth having indelibly
impressed upon John a love for and fascination with his native
city, he began researching San Francisco's history independently
after graduating. Two literary sparks that ignited his research
were the late William Bronson's The Earth Shook, the Sky Burned
about the great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, and Boss Ruef's San
Francisco, by the late Walton Bean, distinguished professor of
history at the University of California, Berkeley, and a foremost
authority on California. In the latter work John first encountered
the great editor Fremont Older (1856-1935), and the more he read
about this incredible individual and the times in which he lived
- and influenced - the more John was determined to produce a biography
worthy of Older.
John and his wife Lana, have formed the Ralston Independent
Works (the name commemorates Great-Grandfather Henry's and
Great-Uncle John's venture), with several aims: publishing "This
date in San Francisco", a book that will have an entry
for every date of the calendar year, and will be available in
An Authentic Hero, the biography of Fremont Older; is almost
finished. In October 2003 John and Lana presented a mixed-media
program on the Billings-Mooney case to the San Francisco
History Association. In June 2004 John gave a program on Fremont
Older at the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society's
monthly meeting, and in September, 2007, a program "Character
References: Famous San Francisco Men and Women".
John and Lana also collaborate on the Encyclopedia
of San Francisco website, to help stimulate interest in the
SFMHS's monumental plans for a Museum of the City of San Francisco
in the Old Mint on Fifth Street. Please visit Ralston
Independent Works web site to get familiar with their work.